The first time he’d turned human had been in the middle of a fight with an angry boar. The beast had stabbed him so badly that he still felt a pain in his ribs if he moved the wrong way. One minute, he’d been a wolf, and the next he’d been on his back while the boar bit, clawed, and tusked him.
Had Fang not come along “Get up, little brother,” he whispered. “You can’t keep living like this.”
Fang didn’t acknowledge him at all.
Vane ran his hand over his brother’s dark brown fur, then turned to leave him there.
In the hallway outside, he passed Aimee Peltier. In human form, she held a bowl of beef soup in her hands as she came from the direction of the stairs.
The only daughter of the bear clan, she was a tall, thin blonde with an exceptionally beautiful face. Her brothers had a full-time job keeping the human men from coming on to her whenever she helped out in the bar that was attached to the house.
It was a job they all took very seriously.
“Is he eating?” Vane asked her.
“Sometimes,” she said quietly. “I got a little soup in him at lunch so I was hoping he might take some more tonight.”
She’d been a godsend to him. Aimee alone seemed to be able to reach Fang.
His brother seemed somehow more alert whenever she was near.
“Thanks. I really appreciate your watching over him for me.” In fact, she spent a great deal of time with Fang. It was enough to make him wonder, but Fang hadn’t moved out of his bed once since the night Vane had brought him here.
“Aimee?” he asked as she started past him.
“Never mind. It was a stupid thought.” There wasn’t anything between his brother and the she-bear. How could there be?
Vane continued on his way down the hall, to the stairs.
He made his way downstairs, across the foyer, and into the small antechamber where a door connected Peltier House to the Sanctuary bar next door.
It opened into the bar’s kitchen where two Were-Hunters, Jasyn Kallinos and Wren, were guarding it innocuously from the human kitchen staff, who had no idea why no one but a select few could pass through the doorway to the other side. It was mostly because those of the bear clan who had young kept their cubs on the top floor of Peltier House. Occasionally, one of the cubs would escape their nurse and roll down the stairs.
The last thing the Peltiers needed was for someone to call animal control on them for the unlicensed zoo that made their house a home.
Of course the idea of a human coming in and finding a wolf, panthers, lions, tigers, and bears asleep in their various beds was rather amusing to Vane. Or better yet, the dragon who slept coiled up in the attic. Someone really should keep a camera handy. Just in case.
Vane inclined his head toward Jasyn, a tall, blond Were-Hawk who was one of the deadlier inhabitants of the house. The price on Jasyn’s head made a mockery of Vane’s death sentence. Mostly because, unlike Jasyn, Vane only killed when he had to. True to his animal predatorial heart, Jasyn was in it for the thrill of the kill.
Jasyn lived to stalk and to maim.
As Vane neared the swinging door that led out to the bar area, it was slung back. Kyle Peltier came running through it in human form like a bat out of hell.
Vane stepped back out of the way.
Remi Peltier, one of the identical quads with long curly blond hair, tackled Kyle to the floor just in front of Vane’s feet and started slugging his younger brother. Kyle tried to fend him off, but it was impossible. Remi was a much older, stronger bear who loved to fight.
Vane grabbed Remi and pulled him away before he hurt the cub. “What are you doing?”
“I’m killing Gilligan,” Remi snarled, trying to get past Vane to grab Kyle again.
“I happen to like the song,” Kyle said defensively, wiping at the blood on his lips as he moved to stand behind an unamused Jasyn.
Wren handed the cub a towel to blot his face.
Remi curled his lips. “Yeah, but we don’t just play that damned song for the hell of it, you idiot. Half the friggin’ clientele ran for the door.”
Mama Bear came in from the Peltier House side to see Kyle bleeding.
“What on earth?” she asked, taking him by the shoulders so that she could examine his split lip. “Mon ange, what happened?”
All maturity left Kyle as he faced his mother. He even let a portion of his short blond hair fall into his blue eyes. “Remi attacked me.”
Remi twisted his arm out of Vane’s grasp. “He played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ on the jukebox, maman.”
Nicolette rolled her eyes at her youngest cub. “Kyle, you know we only play that when the Dark-Hunter Acheron comes through our doors as a courtesy alert to our clientele. What were you thinking?”
Vane stifled a laugh. Acheron Parthenopaeus was the leader of the Dark-Hunters. He was a man of many dichotomies and unbelievable power, and most everyone Vane knew was scared shitless of him. Whenever he entered the bar, most Weres, and all Daimons headed for the door. Especially if they had something to hide.
Kyle gave her a sullen look. “That it’s a good song, maman, and I wanted to hear it.”
Remi rushed for Kyle’s throat, but Vane pulled him back.
“He’s too stupid to live,” Remi snarled. “I think we should cut his throat and save ourselves the heartache.”
Wren gave a rare laugh while Jasyn went stone-faced.
The human staff stayed wisely out of it, and went about their business as if nothing were happening. But then they were used to the brothers and their constant bickering among themselves.
Nicolette growled at her older son. “We were all stupid at his age, Remi.
Even you.” She patted Kyle on the arm and urged him toward the door to Peltier House.
“You’d best stay away from the bar for the rest of the night, cher. Papa and your brothers will need time to cool their tempers.”
Kyle nodded, then looked back at his brother and stuck his tongue out.
Remi made a bear sound that caused every human in the kitchen to stare.
The look on Mama’s face said there would be hell to pay once she had her older cub out of the sight and earshot of the humans.
“I think you’d best head back to the bar, Remi,” Vane said, letting him go. “Fine,” Remi snarled. “Do us all a favor, maman. Eat your young.”
This time it was Jasyn who laughed, then sobered the instant Nicolette gave him a gimlet glare.
Shaking her head, she told the kitchen staff to go back to work. Vane started for the bar.
“Vane, mon cher, wait.”
He looked back at her.
She moved to stand by his side. “Thank you for saving Kyle. Remi has never learned to govern that temper of his. There are times I fear he never will.”
“It’s all right. He reminds me a lot of Fang. When he’s not comatose anyway.”
She looked down, then frowned. Lifting his hand, she stared at his marked palm.
He balled his hand into a fist. “It happened earlier tonight.”
Her jaw went slack before she pulled him back into her house. She shut the door, then faced him. “Who?”
She cursed in French. “Oh, cher,” she breathed. “What are you going to do?”
Vane shrugged. “There’s nothing to be done. I’ll guard her for the duration, then leave her to her life.”
She gave him a puzzled stare. “Why would you damn yourself to so many years with no woman or mate? If you let her go, you may well never mate again.”
Vane started to leave, but she pulled him to a stop.
“What should I do, Nicolette?” he asked, using her real name instead of Mama, which most called her. “I’m a living example of why we need to breed within our own species. The last thing I want is to spread my disease to another generation.”
She looked appalled by his words. “You are not diseased.”
“No? Then what would you call it?”
“You are blessed, as Colt is.”
He gaped incredulously at her words. That was one word he would never have applied to himself. “Blessed?”
“Oui,” she said sincerely. “Unlike the rest of us, you know what it’s like for the other side. You’ve been both animal and human. I’ll never know what it’s like to be human. But you do.”
“I’m not human.”
She shrugged. “Whatever you say, cher. But I know other Arcadians who have mated with humans. If you wish I could have them come talk to you.”
“To what purpose? Were they mixed blood like me?”
“Then what are they going to tell me? If my mate bears children, will they be human or wolf? Will they change base forms at puberty? How do I explain to a human mate that I don’t know what our children will be?”
“But you are Arcadian.”
He hated the fact that Nicolette, Acheron, and Colt could see what he’d been able to hide from others. He didn’t know how they were able to detect him, but it seriously pissed him off. Even his own father hadn’t known he was an Arcadian. Of course it helped that his father barely looked at him.
“Am I Arcadian?” he asked, lowering his voice to an angry whisper. “I don’t feel the human side the way Colt does. How can I have been a wolf pup and then convert to human during puberty? How is that even possible?”
She shook her head. “Je ne sais pas, Vane. There is much in this world I don’t understand. There are very few mixed bloods, you know that. Most humans who are brought in as mates are sterile. Maybe yours is, too.”
That gave him some degree of hope, but he wasn’t foolish enough to grasp it.
His life had never been an easy one. Every time he had reached out for something he wanted, he’d been slapped down viciously.
It was hard to be optimistic in a life where optimism had never been rewarded positively.
“It’s a chance I can’t take,” he said quietly, even though a part of him wanted that chance with a desperation that frightened him. “I refuse to screw up her life.”
Nicolette stepped back from him. “Very well. That’s something that’s completely up to you, but if you change your mind”
“Fine. Why don’t you take the next few weeks and stay with your mate while she is marked? We’ll take care of Fang in the meantime.”
Did he dare trust that offer?
“Are you sure?”
“Oui, cher. You can trust some animals, even bears. I promise you, your brother is safe here, but your mate, she’s not safe alone while she carries your scent on her.”
Nicolette was right. If, as he suspected, his pack was looking for them, their scouts might find his scent around Bride. She would carry it as long as she bore his mark, and a trained Were-Hunter would be able to sniff her out.
There was no telling what his enemies might do to her.
“Thank you, Nicolette. I owe you.”
“I know. Now go and be with your human while you can.”
Vane nodded, then flashed back to Bride’s side.
She was still asleep on her couch. Lying on her back, she looked extremely uncomfortable. Her legs were bunched up and she had one arm over her head while the other dangled off into nothingness.
Tenderness flooded him as he remembered the way she had looked as she came for him. The sight of her face in the mirror as he held her.
She was a passionate woman. One he ached to taste again and again.
Against his common sense, he reached out and touched her soft cheek.
Her eyes fluttered open and she gasped.
Bride sat up with a hiss as she thought she saw Vane standing over her.
The wolf padded around the couch to sit beside her.
Confused, she looked around, then gave a nervous laugh. “Boy, am I hallucinating or what? Oh yeah. Looney Tunes, here I come.”
Shaking her head, she lay back down and tried to go back to sleep, but as she did, she could swear she smelled Vane’s scent on her skin.
For two days, Vane stayed in wolf form as he watched over Bride, but with every minute of it, he felt as if he were being brutally tortured. His natural instinct was to claim her.
If she were a she-wolf, he would be inside her even now, showing her his prowess and authority.
The beast inside him demanded the courtship. The human in him It scared him most of all. Neither part was listening to his cool, calm rationale. Not that he really had any of that where she was concerned.
Around her, he had a raging hormonal surge so profound it made a tsunami look like a toddler’s wave pool.
His need to touch her was becoming so ferocious that he was even afraid to be with her now.
A few minutes ago, in wolf form, he’d run out the door to try and get a grip on himself before he returned to her shop for more torment. Every time she moved, it made his blood heat. The sound of her voice, the lick she gave her long, graceful fingers as she flipped through the pages of her magazines, it was all torture for him.
It was killing him.
Really, he was beginning to. Death had to be preferable to this. Where were the assassin wolves when he needed them? Yeah, pain. That was the answer.
Nothing like severe pain to curb his sexual appetites.
Think of something else.
Vane had to get his mind off Bride and her body. More importantly, off what he wanted to do to and with her body.
Determined to try, he stopped in front of a small store on Royal Street. It was a doll shop, of all things. He didn’t really know why he was here except one of the dolls in the window reminded him of the one Bride had in a box by her TV. “Well, don’t just stand outside, young man, come on in.”